Is there an ideal public records law among the 50 states?

Muckrock by Jessie Gomez

November 2, 2018

The way you gain access to government records varies by state, but across the board requesters continue to face impediments in getting the docs. With 50 public records laws across the nation, which laws serve as model examples for the others to look up to?

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked each state’s public records law and released their findings in the 2015 State Integrity Report. Their state analysis gives little hope for records laws as only three states scored higher than a D+. The report also shows how states can have countless exemptions and loopholes that hinder the release of records.

Tenessee is one of those states with numerous exemptions. The state is riddled with 563 exemptions in the statute with 25 new additions made during this year’s legislative session. Lawmakers are aware of the incredibly high number of exemptions and a new committee in the state is currently discussing the possibility of changing or even sunseting some exemptions. Even more tricky is the fact that some of these exemptions weren’t even included in the main parts of a bill. Often times, they’re hidden within much larger bills only coming to light after a bill has been passed and given legislative authority.

But still, exemptions in Florida double Tennessee’s. Over 1,000 exemptions can be found in Florida state law, with all applying to specific state records. Despite the large number of exemptions, Florida law is still touted as one of the best.

“Given both open meetings laws and open records embedded in the constitution, it is amazing, but it has its flaw,” said President of the First Amendment Foundation, Barbara Petersen.

Florida is a unique state as it allows its exemptions to be construed and narrowly applied. However, their public records law still applies to all branches of government and government entities since Sunshine Laws are mandated in the state. Additionally, Florida has a standard in the constitution for the creation and expansion of exemptions. This means that the legislature is the only one allowed to create an exemption and has to justify the public need for such exemption. Plus, the constitutional standard calls for a single subject bill so no exemptions get lost within larger bills, as is the case in Tennessee.

“We are frequently able to attack or narrow exemptions based on that constitutional standard,” said Petersen. “We have very few universal exemptions or those that apply to every agency in the state.”

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